Physics, Politics, and Visionary Intelligence

I was at a restaurant recently with Max, his dad, and his dad’s friend when the conversation turned to the sort of people who end up here in Washington.  My idea of wonkish and visionary intelligence came up when I noted that this city, in my experience, has a lot of really smart people who, nevertheless, aren’t all that interested in big ideas.  The people most likely to thrive here are technocrats, at levels ranging from the junior policy analyst to the upper-level managers of the federal agencies, not to mention the political parties and their respective machines.  Not infrequently, they’re people who believe that the key to success is to stick with the thoughts that were thunk for them in their expensive master’s degree programs.  And sure, in a bureaucracy, that’s often the key to advancement.  As for the young critical thinkers—well, too often, they find that their stubborn pursuit of truth/sanity/a better world keeps them from getting invited to cocktail parties.

But that sort of stubbornness, I went on, was fundamental to Albert Einstein’s genius.  Did you know that he initially struggled to find an academic job because he was loath to go along with the bureaucratic nonsense of credentialist gatekeepers?  One could make a case that he was shooting himself in the foot unnecessarily there, but then, that same stubborn critical thinking also fueled his revolutionary scientific work, like when he called out flawed assumptions about the way light operates.

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“Well, yeah, but that’s Einstein,” said Max’s dad.  (He happens to be an astrophysicist who worked for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.)  Einstein, he implied, is science’s high mark of genius, Time Magazine’s Person of the Twentieth Century!  Surely you can’t can’t extrapolate much from Einstein that’s applicable to ordinary mortals, right?

“No, that’s just it!” I persisted. “Einstein himself said we shouldn’t think of it that way at all!”  I’m not quoting directly from the book here (I was listening to it on CD during my commute and have since returned it to the library), but I recently finished Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe, which concludes by discussing the preservation of Einstein’s brain.  Those who absconded with poor Al’s cerebrum hoped to study it to determine what made him so smart, ignoring the fact that Einstein himself said the answer wouldn’t be found in examining his brain, but by studying his behavior.

Which is precisely what Max’s dad offered as evidence of Einstein’s extraordinary nature: “He was a guy who, as a kid, said to himself, ‘I wonder what it would be like to ride on a beam of light.'”

“Yes, exactly!” I agreed.  A key ingredient in Einstein’s genius was imagination, as he himself publicly stated.  We could also call it imaginational overexcitability, in keeping with Dabrowski’s work.  And is this really so rare?  I mean, it appears to be somewhat unusual, but when it does emerge, we often stamp it out of people.  We label it childish, a silly distraction from serious, pragmatic work.  You might have some luck with it if you have access to capital and want to start a business, but if you’re interested in the civil service or elected office?  Good luck, black sheep.  Wonkish intelligence, after all, is the pinnacle of what most people believe intelligence looks like.

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But how are ordinary people supposed to recognize a worthwhile vision?  Typically, an expert’s peers assist in the creative process by recognizing the value of each new contribution.  This is, of course, an important step in a healthy system.  But we should remember that this process can go wrong, gummed up by institutional pressures, petty rivalries, powerful interests, and the like.

I’ll jump now from conversing with Max’s dad to one of Max’s high school buddies.  This buddy is now an established research scientist; he has a Harvard degree and a professorship at a respected institution, and he does important research, which means he also spends a lot of his time working on grants.  This friend agreed that the even in a room full of highly intelligent and well credentialed scientists, the decision whether to fund a grant may simply be based on whether the scientist is a big name, because it is otherwise pretty hard to determine whether an idea is worth pursuing or not.  He’s on record as saying that to get anywhere, you have to suck up to the powerful.

Einstein refused to do so, and it did hold him back.  It took him a very long time to get a doctorate and a professorship.  The gatekeepers didn’t know at the time, clearly, that he would be the Person of the Century.  Such people don’t look like what most of us expect them to look like.  (And we’re not even talking about a field like politics where literal physical appearances matter.)

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So Einstein got a job at the Swiss Patent Office, where he blew through his official work and then did his real work (which he kept stashed away in his desk and hid when the boss came by) during his nine-to-five job.  That’s not unlike most of the people I know in DC (and virtually everywhere) who are trying to do their own creative work, though it’s hard to find a place as good as the patent office was for Einstein in terms of enabling creativity.  (Many 40-hour jobs will invent work for you rather than letting you go home when you get the actual work done; others are really 60-hour jobs to begin with.)

Either way, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for going beyond the status quo.

Some days after that dinner, I stumbled across a fantastic article by the free-thinking physicist Lee Smolin, a string theory skeptic who is researching alternatives.  Entitled Why No ‘New Einstein’?, he’s basically arguing that the wonks have taken over even theoretical physics, a field that has historically demanded a good dose of visionary intelligence.  And they’ve done it through the control of institutions:

It follows that new Einsteins are unlikely to be easily characterized in terms of research programs that have been well explored for decades.  Instead a new Einstein will be developing his or her own research program that, by definition, will be one that no senior person ever works on. . . . [And those talented young physicists] who follow large well-supported research programs have lots of powerful senior scientists to promote their careers.  Those who invent their own research programs usually lack such support and hence are often undervalued and unappreciated.  People with the uncanny ability to ask new questions or recognize unexamined assumptions, or who are able to take ideas from one field and apply them to another, are often at a disadvantage when the goal is to hire the best person in a given well-established area.  In the present system, scientists feel lots of pressure to follow established research programs led by powerful senior scientists.  Those who choose to follow their own programs understand that their career prospects will be harmed.  That there are still those with the courage to go their own way is underappreciated.

When I read that, I thought, yep, that’s what Max’s friend was talking about.  We praise Einstein, but if he showed up as a young man today, the established scientific community would be even less likely to hire him than it was in the early twentieth century, and the odds he’d wash out and end up a disillusioned paper pusher surfing the Net in the Patent Office are disturbingly high.

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Let’s return now to Washington, DC, where, you will recall, I was talking to an astrophysicist about the intellectual climate of a city whose major industry is politics.  Smolin’s critique of the physics community may be even more applicable to politics than to physics, because while power brokerage through access to institutional resources is a fact of life that scientists understand they must accept, in politics, people often forget that there’s anything more to life at all.

This, in turn, brought to mind the work of a professor of educational psychology by the name of Roland S. Persson who studies giftedness.  Persson breaks gifted people into three types, which he colloquially calls heroes, nerds, and martyrs, and which correspond respectively to gifted people who contribute escapism, maintenance, and change to society.  In other words, his nerds are my wonkishly intelligent techocrats who maintain the status quo; his heroes are those who entertain us and allow us to live vicariously through their skills in athletics, music, or the arts; and his martyrs are those with what I call visionary intelligence.

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And, says Persson, they’re rarely trusted.  They keep ticking off those emperors, pointing out their lack of clothing!  It will not do if you need to get grant money, or climb in old boys’ clubs, or deal with any other entrenched power structure.

He elaborates on this in an interview with SENG:

If this individual is being contrary to the leadership, harassment and persecution are sure to follow in one way or another.  Interestingly, it rarely matters whether the gifted individual is right or wrong; he or she poses a threat to the credibility of authority.  Again, history is full of examples, and “martyr” is sadly an appropriate term.

The greater the prestige to be lost, the more severe the battle to retain dominance and authority.  Or, as Ellen Winner (1996) put it: The gifted are risk-takers with a desire to shake things up.  Most of all they have the desire to set things straight, to alter the status quo and shake up established tradition. Creators do not accept the prevailing view.  They are oppositional and discontented.

Returning to our dinner conversation: Max’s dad’s buddy is a lawyer and an interesting and decent guy, though our views of politics are diametrically opposed.  He served in the Reagan administration, and he thinks Bernie Sanders is an idiot.

“What has he gotten done in Congress?” he asked me. “NOTHING.”

Well, I conceded, it might be the Senate is not a good place for a visionary—particularly not a lone one.  On the other hand, love him or hate him, surely you’d agree that Bernie’s had an impact, even if it’s not measurable with the same criteria.  A better measure of his success would be the number of people he’s inspired to stubbornness.

If you read his biography, you’ll see that he didn’t have an easy time of it.  It’s through a combination of luck and tenacity that he made it to the Senate.  But under our plutocratic two-party system, for every political Einstein who makes it that far, hundreds more are surely pushing papers somewhere, stuck in a patent office with no way out.

So I’ve set out the problem, and I’ve not resolved it.  But consider this the end merely of a chapter.  In future posts, I’m going to try to find and study those few who do escape the patent office, how they break out, what hurdles they face, and whether any of them actually succeed, by any measure.  I have reason to hope that we can learn something useful from them.

For now, let’s let Einstein have the last word.  Enjoy this excerpt from one of his famous essays:

This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism.  Our whole educational system suffers from this evil.  An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.  I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals.

From Why Socialism?
by Albert Einstein, May 1945

7 thoughts on “Physics, Politics, and Visionary Intelligence

  1. Yes to everything about the politics of science. Cold fusion wasn’t killed by the fossil fuel corporations but by scientists whose reputations and careers depended on hot fusion. But I’m not sure how much Einstein’s time in the patent office was wasted. Wasn’t his job to spend all day looking at every weird idea in Switzerland? That could have laid the groundwork for some unusual thoughts. Rodin spent years making architectural ornaments, a job considered beneath him. But there he was mentored by an old artisan who showed him how to make even the simplest plant or flower sculpture come to life.

    Perrson references a study of the gifted in Sweden and now I really want to know which it was. I have read one study about the lack of gifted education in Sweden but I don’t remember it mentioning suicides.

    The role gifted individuals end up taking in society is at least partially determined by intelligence. With the appropriate education most people with 130-150 IQs work in prestigious professions, are business and political leaders and generally have happy lives. The further you go over 150 the more alien the mind becomes and the greater the likelihood of dying in poverty, in disgrace, or in flames. Sometimes all three.

    I heard “good luck, black sheep” in a posh British fighter pilot accent like “good luck old chap” (usually said just before certain death). But we shouldn’t consider ourselves black sheep. Going our own way, the left hand path, goats not sheep. Do a search for ‘black goat’ and one of the images is terrifying (third line down when I looked) – massive horns, apparently glowing eyes, the Dark One has risen. It should be our insignia, not some oblivious sheep. We are La Cabra Negra, The Cult of the Black Goat. (I realise this may represent the moment my mind finally snapped.)

    You bringing up organisational structure and politics connects to something I’ve been thinking about – how descisions are made in capitalism. I’ve been looking into the dark underbelly of American conspiracy theories like Lyme disease being an escaped bioweapon from Plum Island and ritual abuse being part of CIA mind control experiments, and both being tied back to Nazi scientists and Operation Paperclip. I’m wondering both how much truth there is to these secret state programs and more generally how many descisions are actually made in stereotypical smoke-filled rooms, rather than being the result of many factors interacting over time. Sort of like the intentionalist vs functionalist debate in Holocaust studies. What are your thoughts?

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    1. I should probably expand on the black goat thing so I can maintain some semblance of sanity. One of the common terms for the gifted is ‘poppies’ and while that may be good for drumming up sympathy for children it isn’t something you can take pride in as an adult. All I could come up with was saying people want to exploit me for my opium. Then there is the symbol of the cheetah which I suppose is better but is still the skinniest and most fragile of the big cats.

      I’m looking for words and images I can take pride in, something like the gifted equivalent of Huey Newton on the wicker throne. The goat image worked for me. Its expression reminds me of Peter the Great in ‘Morning of the Streltsy Excecution’ (and on the day we take power and our enemies are beaten in the streets, I will have this expression). 😉 Like Churchill called depression the black dog, giftedness is the black goat (it’s not a perfect comparison as depression is something you have and gifted is something you are). Saying it in Spanish just appeals to the part of me that wants to be in an occultist Latino street gang. But we’ve all been there, right?

      I had doubts about this because of the other possible interpretation of the black goat, but recently after discussing politics, a Christian accused me of being a liar, a Satanist and a Stalinist. It was so tempting to respond “I am not a Stalinist!” (but I did get to read ‘Marx and Satan’ which brightened my day). If they think of us like that anyway, then why not? I know this concept may not appeal to you as you’re in the ‘patiently explaining’ stage of gifted advocacy, but I’m reaching the “Dzerzinsky! Kill everyone who disagrees with us!” stage. 🙂

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      1. (Playing with metaphor is my favorite form of flying the flag. 🙂 )

        One of the problems with coming up with a symbol to represent all the gifted is that we are actually a pretty diverse population. It’s like, you’d have to come up with the Twelve Tribes of Giftedness or something. (I don’t actually know how many tribes it would be. Surely each of us could be our own tribe, but then, you lose the benefits of tribes when you get that granular.) I admit to being a fan of the cheetah metaphor (one of my drafts in progress uses it), but then, fast but fragile is a tribal trait that fits me to some degree. I’m not really a Dark One type! You mentioned stages of gifted advocacy, but I think this may be more about temperaments than stages. I don’t think Dzerzhinskiy was exactly a Level V on Dabrowski’s scale. And as a democratic socialist, Chekism is pretty much the opposite of everything I stand for! I mean, coming back around to the theme of this post, even if one is for meritocracy, the people who fancy themselves meritocrats are the likes of Hillary Clinton and Theresa May, who lack the kind of divergent thinking visionary intelligence to actually make a better world. (I do think Hillary Clinton certainly counts as intellectually gifted, probably in the upper end of socially optimal intelligence, perhaps with lower scores on the Torrance test, and between that and the “socially optimal” element, in danger of being swept into excellent sheephood and celebrated by tribe of silky white sheep. Suffice it to say that is yet another, quite separate tribe.)

        But now I do want to play with symbols, even if I have to incorporate tribes into it.

        (And now I’m thinking about Lemmings 2: The Tribes, which I played a lot on the Amiga before we got the new computer with SimCity 2000.)

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      2. And in case some zealot from KeyWiki finds and quotes my “pretty much the opposite” line, I’d like to add that the “pretty much” is nothing but conversational filler and the kind of softener I’ve been socialized to use as a female. DSA, and I, am completely against the implementation of a BЧК. 🙂 (All-Gifted Emergency Commission? See, the problem there is that one tribe of the gifted starts killing off another tribe of the gifted and saying they’re not REAL gifted at all, but weirdo countergiftedaries who are not to be trusted. This gets messy really fast. Step back from the brink, alternate universe Vladimir Ilich! It could’ve been different!)

        I think it’s past my bedtime now.

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    2. Darkest, sorry for my belated response! Your posts always demand a good pondering, and I just got myself voted onto the DSA local steering committee and that means I have to keep up with email. (Oh, geez, there’s a horrid thought: the idea that the revolution will only come about if I manage to keep up with my inbox. And there’s truth to it now! Oh dear oh dear oh dear.)

      Agreed that Einstein’s time in the Patent Office wasn’t necessarily wasted! I’m delighted that you picked up on that point, because I imagine I’ll go into that in further posts. I loved how in the book it described him as hurrying through his work on patents and then pulling out his “real work” that he stuffed under his desk. The concerns I’d raise, though, are that (a.) the rest of us in society might fancy that folks like this are still successfully getting (eventually) into places where they can better contribute to their fullest capacity, but I see reason to doubt this, and (b.) there’s the broader issue of bright people having to do SOME kind of dumb job (far dumber than the Patent Office was for our pal Al) that isn’t really the best use of their time/capacity. Is this worth caring about? Because we care about the fulfillment of all people? Because we want to benefit from their talents? Certainly free market capitalism doesn’t live up to its claim to effectively allocate various talents, at any rate.

      I’ve wanted to read more of Persson’s work and the things he cites, but a lot of it’s not available in English. (Which reminds me: I do have a neat book on the concept of giftedness in other cultures, but haven’t read it yet and won’t get to it anytime soon.)

      Ah yes, the “socially optimal intelligence” range. I can think of another complicating factor: high scores on the Torrance Tests, which indicate divergent thinking. (It measures something slightly different from IQ, though the two scores can of course both be high and often are.) I realized today that my visionarily intelligent types are essentially just those with more ability for divergent thinking. The wonkish types never learned anything but the convergent, and it was enough to get them gold stars and scholarships. More on that in a future post in the series.

      More on black sheep and goats below in response to your other post.

      On smoke-filled rooms…hmmm. Well, I live in Washington, DC, so I have friends who work where the smoke-filled rooms would be. Actually, the person I know who comes closest to it would be the friend of Max’s dad I mentioned above. But he only ever indicates the basic corporate capitalist throwing around of weight and money. Other friends of my own generation make comments from time to time that support my basic views of pursuit of money and power corrupting people rather than any sort of intentionalist view. Of course, it’s possible I just don’t have the right friends. But I’m not big on conspiracy theories myself. Never attribute to cleverness or conspiracy what you can attribute simply to incompetence, or so I learned from a professor of international affairs some years back, and the current US presidential administration seems to back that up.

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  2. Jessie you don’t get sleep deprived, you get sleep depraved. #mirrorlife 🙂 The All-Gifted Emergency Committee encapsulates all my twisted revenge fantasies. When somebody says something stupid, pistol whipping them and screaming “SILENCE, TYP!” or having them tied to a chair and saying “Say something intelligent or I’ll kill you”.

    Seriously though, the Cheka with its corruption, incompetence and brutality is the epitome (for so many years I thought that word was pronounced ‘epi-tome’) of the Bolsheviks taking a swan-dive back into the abyss they were trying to claw their way out of. The Cheka’s original name was going to be something like the ‘Extraordinary Commission for Combatting Counterrevolution, Sabotage and Abuse of Authority’ but they dropped the last part because that would have been the point irony crossed into taking the piss. The first Bolshevik Commissar of Justice said something along the lines of “It’s better to defeat our enemies on the battlefield than the torture chamber. We’ll take higher casualties that way but we’ll get to keep our souls.” Predictably, he didn’t last long.

    It feels strange criticising the Bolsheviks. I came to socialism throught the Socialist Workers Party and they support the Bolsheviks all the way to 1927. Although I know things started going wrong almost immediately (and I suspect some of that may have been because Lenin and Trotsky hadn’t slept much the week before October 25 and were so sleep deprived going to war with the railway union seemed like a good idea), it still feels disloyal.

    You and the DSA obviously know the ruling class will put up a fight and elements of the masses will stubbornly hang on to their prejudices. What level of repression are you willing to use to control them?

    Coming up with the Twelve Tribes of Gifted with their own insignia is tempting in a White Wolf RPG kind of way but it could also turn into an identity politics trainwreck. There is also the problem of trying to get people who are defined by their eccentricity to agree on anything. Now that I think about it though, if we were using planes instead of animals, I probably would have gone with the SR71 Blackbird, which is fast and fragile. There is a photograph of one stuck in traffic as it is being moved down a highway, which is an apt metaphor for my education (no alternative schools, homeschooling or gifted program – just fourteen years in the salt mines) and may explain where my ruthless streak comes from. I also think ‘the salt mines’ will be my euphemism for traditional education and authoritarian schools from now on. 🙂

    I’ve heard the exact opposite about incompetence – that stupidity is just a disguise the powerful put on to cover their evil intentions. Some of the conspiracy theories are extremely strange but it’s interesting that the left usually ignores them even though we know Iran-Contra happened. The one that keeps pulling me back is mind control – the holy grail of ruling classes down the ages, with pharaohs carving fake news on obelisks thousands of years ago. Post-WWII intelligence agencies had massive research programs that went on for at least a decade and we’re really supposed to believe that the most significant thing that happened was a scientist took LSD and fell out of a hotel window?

    And congratulations on your promotion, comrade. The email inbox will keep you nostalgic for the days when you could call an insurrectionary general strike by throwing snowballs at the factory windows. 🙂

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  3. You ask a very important question there about the level of repression, and I’ve therefore I mulled over it for a long time, which is how I realized that my back door out of the question is actually the straightforward front door: I don’t honestly expect to personally live to see a point where that question will be relevant. Don’t get me wrong: it would indicate a surprising success of our movement if we did, and I do think we can be successful; otherwise I’d just be wasting my time. (I do have those novels I could be writing, after all!)

    But the work I see as most useful to bringing us closer to a socialist world is, right now, putting a vision in people’s minds — and bringing that vision into clearer focus so that people actually see it as a worthwhile goal, and a worthwhile use of their time in the pursuit of it. The biggest problem we face is the repression of our message.

    What will happen in future conflicts? I don’t know. I don’t feel prepared to say. I do intend to keep thinking about it. But my answer would depend on conditions that aren’t here yet for me to evaluate.

    I can say that, in terms of actual physical attempts at repression, I’m staunchly nonviolent in terms of offense, but defense is, of course, permissible. Yes, it’s for moral reasons, but it’s also for the practical reasons of retaining the high ground for the movement, too. We need to be the Good Guys. Given the return of Nazis, that could become relevant. :\

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